Only someone seriously mistaken and misdirected would take his grumbling appendix to be examined and treated by an economist. Similarly, no one wishing to learn more about the intricate working of the price mechanism in an advanced market economy would seek enlightenment from a doctor.
And yet, while there are no economists performing appendectomies, there are regrettably a few mistaken and misdirected members of the medical profession who not only purport to be expert economic theorists but are so confident of their proficiency in this field that they presume to offer advice on Government fiscal policy.
Last week, the British Medical Association called for the duty on alcohol to be raised to curb excess drinking. If only it were that simple. If only an increase in tax would rid our streets of vomiting, violent teenagers and restore an amiable calm to our public houses. But of doubts the BMA has none. Indeed, so sure is it of its grasp of economic theory that it issues precise figures. Sir Charles George, chairman of its science and education board, says a 10% rise in tax would prevent 29% of alcohol-related deaths in men and 27% in women.
There is a vulgar word to describe those figures, which translated into medical terminology is “testes” or, to be linguistically punctilious, “absolute testes”. Binge drinking is a complex phenomenon. Among its elements are the peculiar British psyche, the breakdown of family life, the collapse of authority and, yes, the availability of alcohol. To suggest that a multiple problem has a single cure is foolish; to put a precise figure on the lives that will be saved by that single measure is worse than folly, it is tendentiousness masquerading as science.
There are good reasons for believing that an increase in the price of drink would be ineffectual. Britain’s alcohol tax is already among the highest in Europe and yet drinking with the sole aim of becoming hog-whimpering drunk is peculiar to this country. Increasing the tax still further would result in more cheap drink being brought in from abroad and encourage a black market in booze. We are not dealing here with a Hogarthian beer-alley and gin-lane malaise; our binge drinkers are not desperate, poverty stricken people seeking escape and solace in cheap liquor, they are the inhabitants of one the richest countries in the world who have a peculiarly primitive attitude to drink. Putting up the price will not deter them.
The economic illiteracy of the BMA should not surprise us. As well as professing an expertise in the laws of supply and demand, the doctors have also declared themselves knowledgeable in the effectiveness of advertising and marketing. A ban on the advertising of tobacco, they confidently asserted, would save 3,000 lives (or was it 10,000?) but they did not adduce a scrap of evidence in support of the claim.
Well, two can play at that game, and I have an unsubstantiated theory of my own – for some doctors the daily prospect of peering down the throats and, less appealingly still, up the backsides of one’s fellow humans can become intolerable, especially when an alternative beckons. When that alternative is to strut the corridors of power, to walk with politicians, to suggest Government policy and to be rewarded with a respectful hearing, the urge to give up the day job becomes irresistible. I have seen it in my own trade: in the hey-day of Fleet Street, when industrial turmoil was a way of life, many a tired hack forsaking the drudgery of reporting or the dull anonymity of sub-editing for the intoxicating excitement of playing politics in the National Union of Journalists.
There is another reason for supposing that the doctors who foisted on us their rudimentary knowledge of economics are weary of medicine, and that is their casual misuse of their own terminology. The BMA’s report was called “Alcohol misuse: tackling the UK epidemic”. The word epidemic has a precise medical meaning – the widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time. Alcohol misuse cannot accurately be so described.
But epidemic has, of course, become a cliché, a buzzword favoured by propagandists and lobbyists whose purpose is to spread alarm and to draw attention to themselves. Obesity epidemic is another example. If we were similarly careless we should describe such nomenclature abuse as an epidemic. But that would be to talk testes.